To what extent did the Thatcher years coincide with a sea-change in the values of the British electorate

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and with her brought a new approach to British politics and a break with traditional Conservatism. “By the late 1970s the conventional wisdom was that the February 1974 election had brought to an end a quarter century of stable, balanced two party politics and ushered in a new era of partisan dealignment…. Many more voters were up for grabs”. 1 Thatcher took advantage of the end of consensus politics in a big way, she introduced populist policies to get her into power, such as strong policies on immigration, law and order and foreign policy.

An example of this is Thatcher’s keenness to start a debate on bringing back the death penalty, “(Thatcher’s) preference for the ultimate deterrent of the death penalty is much more in tune with popular, grassroots opinion…. Thatcher’s populism may not have changed people’s attitudes, but it may have changed their votes”. 2 Thatcher came into power with general attitudes in the electorate moving away from left wing views especially after the Winter of Discontent under Callaghan in the previous Labour government.

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Thatcher exploited this shift in attitudes with her right wing policies, she was keen on privatisation and free market principles as principles to run the economy and wanted a more lassiez faire attitude from government in general. There are three main areas which I am going to look at in which Thatcher’s policies tried to hijack the traditional Labour voters, the working class. The first policy that I’m going to look at is the “right to buy” policy.

This was the idea that council house tenants could buy there own council houses (at a vastly reduce rate) and therefore become house owners which would then lead them to vote for the Conservatives. This did happen, with over one and a half million houses being sold to the tenants during Thatcher’s three terms in office. During this time those who became homeowners didn’t necessarily become immediate Conservative voters, however figures show that the those who did buy their council were much more likely to vote for the Conservatives. … council house buyers supported the Conservatives twice as strongly as did local authority tenants. Buyers voted Labour about 25% less often than did council tenants in 1992″.

Although Garrett does try to say that it is a flawed policy with “In the short term, the government was able to apply the proceeds from council house sales to reducing the public sector deficit. Only in the longer run would additional sources of revenue be needed to make up for the loss of rental income”. However I don’t believe this to be true as although the government weren’t receiving the income that they would have had through rent, they have also washed their hands of having to maintain the buildings, as time goes on this is only going to get more expensive. But as Garret also points out “(New home owners) are more likely to favour lower property and capital gains taxes than local authority tenants, and to place a higher premium on price stability.

In turn, one might expect that these interests would make the new owners less likely to vote Labour and more likely to support the Conservatives”. This was certainly a change in voting patterns as those who lived in council houses have traditionally voted for Labour, this swing away is a definite sign that Thatcher broke traditional voting patterns with her “right to buy” policy. The second Thatcher policy I’m going to focus on is Privatisation, Thatcher’s radical economic program included the selling off of nationalised industries to the highest bidder. The theory was that a private company with profit margins that it needs to maintain will run an industry more productively and in a more cost-effective manner.

With respect to voting patterns the privatisation policy of Thatcher created a whole new wave of shareholders as people bought shares into companies. Those who bought shares in companies in the 1980s generally benefited as the government consistently undervalued companies when people bought shares they were able to collect immediate profits. Although there were material benefits for the new shareholders they weren’t huge so it is debatable to whether this would affect voting behaviour. However the figures once again show a different story “… irst-time share buyers voted Labour less than half as frequently as did non-share owners”. 6 However the benefits for share holders fell from the BP flotation in 1987, there was a market crash and this hit those who had bought shares in BP and dulled the market buoyancy.

Although the privatisation drive did receive criticism, especially from those who felt that it would lead to an increase in taxation it “could be expected that (the shareholders) political allegiances would have shifted from Labour and towards the government in a lasting way as a consequence of the Conservatives’ privatisation program”. The third Thatcher policy that affected the electorate was how Thatcher dealt with the unions. Thatcher tried to break the organised labour movement, once again this was Thatcher targeting the traditional Labour supporter. Union membership dropped under 40% this meant a 3. 5 million drop in union membership. 8 This meant that a cut in Labour support as workers left unionised employment, however many did become unemployed but those who moved to a workplace that wasn’t unionised led to an increase in the working class supporting Conservatives.

Although it didn’t affect voting in the way that council house sales or the increase in shareholders did, it did contribute to an increase in the working class voting for the Conservatives. Although the policies I’ve looked at so far show an increase in the working class voting for the Conservative this doesn’t mean there was a sea change in the values of the electorate. As impressive as it is that Thatcher managed to create a Conservative voting working class there are many other factors that need to be looked at. When you look at each election that Thatcher stood in there were various other factors.

As I looked at earlier Thatcher came into power with populist policies on the back of a disastrous Labour government. The 1983 election was a landslide for Thatcher but this is mainly due to the Falklands war that stirred up feelings on Nationalism in Britain that Thatcher played on. When actually looking at the voting figures you can see that Thatcher’s share of the vote dropped from 43. 9% of the vote in 1979 to 42. 4% in 1983 this shows that the First Past The Post voting system had a lot to answer for to get the result that ended in a 189 seat majority for the Conservatives.

At the same time the Conservatives had no real opposition during the 1980s the Labour party was in disarray with the splitting away of the SDP and the policies became more and more left wing to the point where they were seen as a joke. In the 1987 election the Conservatives still only gained 42. 3% of the vote yet they still retained a 147 majority. “Mrs Thatcher has won her landslides by default, on the cheap. By historical standards the 42% vote in the 1980s is low, well below the levels achieved by Churchill, Eden and MacMillian in the 1950s, or even by Douglas-Home in 1964, when he lost.

There has been no ground-swell of Conservative support: its vote has slipped, not surged, since 1979. Mrs Thatcher owes her power to a divided opposition and an disproportionate electoral system, as Baldwin did between the wars”. 9 Ivor Crewe notes that although Thatcher had huge majorities the electorate actually swung back to left wing views. “Quite simply there has been no Thatcherite transformation of attitudes or behaviour among the British public. If anything, the British have edged away from Thatcherite positions as the decade has progressed.

The Thatcher governments have undoubtedly transformed the British political economy, overturned the political agenda and permanently altered the social structure. But this has been done with a cultural counter-revolution in the thinking of ordinary people”. 10 Crewe then goes on to say that Thatcherism was the “crusade that failed” This is probably a harsh assessment as Dahrendorf claimed “Mrs Thatcher has, in her nine years as Prime Minister, probably effected a deeper change in social values than any other democratic politician in the post war period”. 1 However if you look at when the Labour party did come back into power they did it by completely reshaping themselves into New Labour dropping their Socialist edge and shifting to the right. This shows that Thatcher has made a difference with the voters if she forced the Conservatives’ main rivals to reinvent themselves and take a step to the right. However since New Labour have been in office they have followed left wing policies such as tax and spend, an emphasis on public services and the welfare state.

In conclusion the Thatcher era did definitely shake up British politics, she created a Conservative working class and had a strong leadership style. However when looking to see if she created a sea-change in the values of the British electorate you have to say the evidence weighs against her. The middle class for example didn’t really move from their original leanings, she did make irreversible changes such as the privatisation of industries.

But she did it on only 42% of the electorate, whilst there was no real opposition and had other major factors that helped her such as the Falklands war. As Crewe noted “It is true that, irrespective of trends in public values, many of Thatcherism’s achievements are probably irreversible: it is difficult to envisage re-nationalisation on a larger scale, or a return to fixed exchange rates, or a decline in owner-occupation. But that does not make the failure of Thatcher’s cultural crusade unimportant”. 12